AARP Research Study Explores Why People Are Happy

Published September 14, 2012, Pawtucket Times

           “Good conversation, meeting new people while traveling, and being in good health” brings much happiness to long-time Pawtucket resident Jean Babiec.  The former Providence school teacher, in her eighth decade, added she would be ‘extremely happy’ if the Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation, signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee, to create a Pawtucket Red Sox vanity license plate.

           At-Large Pawtucket City Councilor, Lorenzo C. Tetreault, 65, is “the happiest when he can help others.”  The retired Pawtucket teacher is also happy when he holds his one-year old twin grandsons from Narragansett, Samuel and Benjamin, in his arms.

           Former Pawtucket Tax Assessor, Dave Quinn, 64, who now oversees the Tax Office in the City of Providence, finds happiness “knowing that his family is healthy and his children are doing well.”  The Seekonk resident also feels happy by being intellectually challenged by his job.

           Babiec, Tetreault and Quinn’s statements on what makes them happy are reflected by others documented in a recently released AARP study on what happiness means to aging baby boomers.  The findings of this report indicate that relationships and being in control of your health and life are key factors in bringing happiness into your life.  

Defining Happiness

            The new AARP study, titled “Beyond Happiness: Thriving,” found that most Americans age 35 and over are happy, but compared to historical General Social Survey (GSS) data, levels of happiness are on the decline and at their lowest levels (due in part to the nation’s economic downturn).  In an effort to explore what happiness means to aging baby boomers and what it takes to thrive as they age, over 4,000 adults age 35 and over were surveyed to determine what makes them happy.   

             “We’re always looking to get a more robust understanding of the contributors and barriers to happiness in people’s lives,” said Steve Cone, Executive Vice President of Integrated Value Strategy, AARP. “Building on previous AARP research, which shows the importance of happiness and peace of mind to aging baby boomers, these new results affirm that we are on the right track—advocating to ensure basic health and financial security and making available everyday discounts that let people enjoy time with family and friends.”  

             According to researchers, the findings of this study reveal the existence of a U-shape curve of happiness by age. The early 50s is the lowest point from which happiness builds. Thus, if you missed happiness in your 30’s, there is still another chance to achieve it in your 60’s.

             The Researchers note that as people age and eventually retire, they can devote more time to building relationships and just enjoying simple everyday pleasures.  Younger people are still working hard to solidify their accomplishments.

           The AARP study’s results also provide four key insights around the drivers of happiness.

The Happiness Spectrum

            Overall, the strong majority (68%) of respondents say they are happy, although intensity of happiness is somewhat tempered as the largest percent report being somewhat happy (49%) versus very happy (19%). Almost half of those surveyed feel they are just as happy as others (49%) and the rest tend to believe that they are happier than others (31%) as opposed to less happy than others (13%). Part of this may be attributed to the perceptions of people being the masters of their own happiness destiny.

            More interesting, the respondents were concern for the happiness of the next generation. Less than half feel they will be as happy or more (45%). Most are either not sure (19%) or believe they will be less happy (35%).

Relationships Key to Happiness 

           The AARP survey findings also indicate that regardless of your age, good relationships with friends, family, and even pets, were found to be universally important. Activities associated with those relationships contributed most to a person’s happiness. The most significant activity was kissing or hugging someone you love.  Other activities included: watching your children grandchildren or close relative succeed; being told you are a person who can be trusted or relied upon; spending time with your family or friends such as a meal or social gathering; and finally, experiencing a special moment with a child. 

            Researchers say that relationships with family pets were especially important to women, singles and older individuals.  However, relationships did have to be real: “connecting with friends or family on a social media site like Facebook” came in 37th out of 38 activities in contributing to happiness. Importantly, none of the top contributors require a lot of money to achieve; they are “simple pleasures” that can be had by all.

 Good Health Linked to Happiness 

          Without good health, it is far more difficult to achieve happiness: people in “good or excellent” health are three times more likely to report being “very” happy, the researchers say.  However, one’s health may be more a state of mind than objective reality.  The findings noted that the percentage of those reporting good health is relatively stable over the ages 35 to 80, varying only seven percentage points, even as reported chronic or serious medical conditions increase 400% in the same age range. 

Calling the Shots, Brings Happiness

          The majority of those surveyed feel they have control over their personal level of happiness. Interestingly, this sense of control increases with age. Moreover, people who feel in control are clearly happier—reporting that they are 2.5 times happier than those who believe happiness is out of their control. The study’s findings indicate that a sense of control is linked to higher income, higher education, good health and the lack of having experienced a major life event in the past year.

Money Does Not Always Guarantee Happiness

            While many will say having money can bring happiness, this research study showed that it seems that how one spends it seems to matter more.  Happiness increases with income and conversely, lack of financial resources was tied to unhappiness. While less than a third of participants said money contributed to happiness, when asked how they would spend $100 on something to increase happiness, most respondents said they would spend it on their family or going out to dinner. Money is only a resource, that when applied to meaningful areas of one’s life, can provide experiences that can increase happiness.

         Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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